"We have a gang problem in this city." "Tougher laws sought to deal with Chattanooga's gang problem." "14 Chattanooga gang members arrested over weekend." "Rising gang activity in Hamilton County reported." "Outrageous gang violence."
These are just a few of the dozens of headlines about Chattanooga's gang problem plastered across the pages of the Times Free Press in the past year.
It's obvious that exposing the gang issue and highlighting efforts to solve the problem have become a primary focus of this newspaper's reporting in recent months.
The Chattanooga Police Department is concentrating a considerable portion of its $54 million budget towards efforts to get gang members off the streets. One such crackdown was "Operation Gangsgiving," a Thanksgiving week roundup that resulted in the arrest of 17 suspected gang members.
For their part, Chattanooga's elected leaders have committed $457,000 towards the city's anti-gang initiative this year and plan to increase that funding by $320,000 next year.
As a result of this uniform emphasis on scaring the daylights out of Chattanoogans about gangs, many area residents must believe that they will be burglarized, beaten, raped and murdered by gang members before the week is out. In fact, a recent Times Free Press voter survey found nearly half of the people polled believe that crime, violence and gangs are the largest problems facing Chattanooga.
But they're not.
The truth is that Chattanooga's crime rates -- both violent crime and property crime -- are currently at their lowest point at any time since the early 1980s.
In the early 1990s it was common for nearly 50 murders a year to take place in Chattanooga. Now it's rare for the number of homicides to reach half that number in a year. Even in the current bad economy, property crime rates, including offenses such as burglary, have fallen every year since 2007. Car thefts are down two-thirds since 2000.
The city may have a gang problem, but that gang problem clearly isn't resulting in an increase in crimes. In fact, if anything, the more the alleged "gang problem" grows, the safer the city becomes.
It's actually possible that an increase in gangs, by creating more formal geographic boundaries for illegal activities such as drug dealing and prostitution, has led to fewer arguments over turf than when every drug pusher and street walker had to fight for a corner. The result of fewer turf battles? Fewer violent crimes.
The city's drop in crime, however, doesn't mean that gangs aren't a problem. Gangs continue to pose a threat to our community -- especially when children join gangs and, ultimately, become involved in illegal behavior at the expense of their education and the promise of a sustainable future.
Still, it's impossible to know how big the gang problem actually is. The Chattanooga Police Department only formally began tracking gang related crimes in 2007. In 2011, there were 259 gang-related crimes, which represented only 3.3 percent of the total crimes committed in Chattanooga.
Even with the Chattanooga Police Department giving it their best effort, counting gang-related crimes is all but impossible. After all, there's no way to know every member of every gang, so it's likely that hundreds of gang related crimes aren't tracked.
To confuse matters more, not all crimes that the police department claims are "gang related" actually are. For example, if a gang member punches a man who bumped into him at a crowded party, the incident would count as a gang crime. The fight, however, had nothing to do with gang affiliation.
With Chattanooga's crime rates dropping and reliable gang data almost impossible to find, why do city leaders, the law enforcement community and the media continue to make gang crime one of Chattanooga's biggest issues? There are several reasons, and none of them are anything to be proud of.
The federal and state government, as well as private foundations and charities, make millions of dollars available to cities and counties attempting to solve their gang problems. This money can be used to subsidize additional law enforcement officers, training, community programs and a number of other things city leaders are more than happy to see receiving funds. As a result, Chattanooga's lawmakers have an incentive to overstate the city's gang problem in hopes of collecting handouts.
Elected officials and candidates propose solutions to the gang issue in hopes of snagging votes from the nearly half of Chattanooga residents who believe crime is the city's biggest problem. Andy Berke, only weeks into his campaign as mayor, has already pledged to clean up the gang problem. In reality, his plan probably won't change a thing, but it'll garner votes nonetheless.
The police department knows that the worse crime seems -- even when crime is actually declining significantly -- the more willing taxpayers are to send more dollars their way.
Even the media gets in on the act. When tragedies occur, like the shooting of 13-year old Keoshia Ford, we make the extremely rare incident appear to be a common occurrence and a reason to fear for your life -- all in the hopes that you'll keep reading, watching or listening.
You, as a resident of Chattanooga, deserve an apology from city leaders, the police department and the media. We've all made you believe that you are in constant danger. You're not.
It's time to be honest. We may have a gang problem, but Chattanooga's crime rate has been falling for years -- and the city is safer today than it has been in more than a generation.